Save for your own heart thudding behind your chest, the only noise you can hear is that of a thundering freight train. It’s a low rumbling, a guttural churning. It’s the sound of unseen whitewater, of hundreds of cfs (cubic feet per second) of surging current charging toward a horizon line before dropping off into the void. Steep canyon walls rise from the river’s edge, boxing you in, committing you forever downstream.
The late afternoon sunlight filters into the gorge, but soon it will be gone. You and your partner stare at the lip from the safety of your cockpits several yards upstream. An almost foreboding sense of dread coupled with the enticing allure of the unknown tempts you to carry on. The only assurance you have that anything even exists beyond the river’s edge comes in the form of mist spraying intermittently into the air. Aside from that, you know nothing of what lies ahead.
To some, kayaking at even its most basic level seems counterintuitive, reckless, a sure sign of a death wish. At first blush, the sport may certainly seem that way—after all, you are strapping yourself into a plastic boat and hurling yourself down a natural force that carves out mountains, for Pete’s sake. Undoubtedly, kayaking is not everyone’s cup of tea. But the media coverage that the whitewater community, and the adventure sports world at large, receives does little to resolve any misgivings about outdoor recreation.
The news celebrates the dramatic and mourns the traumatic. Sensationalized reports like that of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s record free climb of the Dawn Wall or the tragic unveiling of kayaker Shannon Christy’s death on the Great Falls of the Potomac River lead the public eye astray, to the idea that the world of adventure is either awe-inspiring or foolishly dangerous and nothing in between. And the adventurers themselves? Well, they can be heroes one day, adrenaline-crazed junkies the next.
But what about you and your partner, sitting there above a rapid you’ve never run before? Maybe it’s the first time any human being has seen this river from the cockpit of a kayak. Or perhaps you’re just another paddler, one of the hundreds who will navigate these same waters during the season. You’re not out there for the fame and glory of it. You’re definitely not out there with a death wish—actually, you’d prefer to make it downriver alive so you can paddle again tomorrow.
So why do you do it? Why spend your free time dancing with danger, risking life and limb for an activity of no apparent societal value while cozy couches and the latest Netflix releases sit unattended? What is it about kayaking, about riding, about climbing, that beckons to you, that begs and pleads then outright demands you to ditch work early and head for the mountains? What is it that keeps you coming back for more even after the worst of swims? What is it?
French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called it l’homme sauvage, the wild man that lies beneath our civilized exterior. English explorer Sir Richard Burton blamed it on “the devil [that] drives.” Scientists worldwide have attributed a heightened presence of it in humans that carry the 7R variant of the DRD4 gene, a dopamine-receptor in the brain that elicits restlessness and encourages novelty-seeking behaviors.
Whatever you want to call it though, we all have it. It’s what makes us climb up trees as children, date new people as teenagers, and take jobs and move away as adults. It’s what makes us fire up the rapid we always used to portage and charge the cliff we normally sneak. It’s the call of the unknown, the longing for the land of Beyond, but it’s about time we asked ourselves—will it ever push us too far?
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
In 2009, kayaker Tyler Bradt soared 77mph over the lip of Palouse Falls in Washington State. When his boat hit the water, it disappeared beneath the falls’ pummeling for nearly seven seconds. He eventually surfaced, still inside his boat and with a broken paddle in hand, but surprisingly he was unharmed and, it should go without saying, stoked at having set the record for the tallest waterfall ever run in a kayak. It was 189.5 feet in height.
Bradt’s accomplishment was considered groundbreaking by some, insane by others. No one at the time knew if the human body could withstand such an impact and live to see another day, and no one’s topped that record since. At 167 feet, Niagara Falls would have come in at a close second, but Red Bull paddler Rafa Ortiz backed away from the challenge in 2013 after three years of meticulous planning and preparation for the first descent.
“I walked to the drop like I’ve done with many waterfalls in the past, looking for that last positive feeling,” Ortiz said on social media afterwards. “It wasn’t there.”
While Bradt and Ortiz’s vertical exploits represent the fringes of the sport nowadays, it’s only a matter of time before running 100-plus-foot waterfalls becomes mainstream. Just 30 years ago, the kayaking community would have never considered running a 100-footer in a boat (and surviving it) as even a remote possibility. The early days of the sport were focused more on slalom paddling and downriver races. Kayaks were 13 feet long, homemade, and, consequently, easily breakable. Impacts from plunging over a waterfall like Palouse would surely result in serious injury if not death.
But that doesn’t mean the early pioneers of the sport weren’t lured away from the slalom world by the call of the unknown, that tantalizing prospect of possibility. In fact, had it not been for renegade paddlers from the ‘70s and ‘80s who crashed their awkwardly long boats down steep creeks no one had ever seen before, Bradt might never have developed the skills or found the courage to buck up and huck Palouse Falls.
A lot has changed within the sport of kayaking in just a few decades. Between boat redesigns, new moves and skillsets, and beta galore on rivers and creeks previously deemed unrunnable, the paddlers of today are presented with a new challenge—what next? And more importantly, will the risk of taking that next step be worth the reward?
To help visualize just how far the sport has grown, and to provide some insight into the paddler’s psyche, I talked with six boaters, past and present, who have tread that line of possibility, battled risk for reward, and helped to progress the world of kayaking in the Blue Ridge and beyond.
It was the spring of 1972. Pennsylvania born-and-raised Charlie Walbridge sat in his boat below the class IV rapid Bastard on the Upper Youghiogheny River, trembling, barely able to pull his skirt over the cockpit.
Walbridge was just a 20-something-year-old at the time with a c1 (that’s a one-man canoe with a covered cockpit) and a wild hair. He was a seasoned paddler who frequented the rivers of western Pennsylvania and the northern parts of Virginia and West Virginia. Having paddled extensively for the past five years, Walbridge was well versed in the ways of whitewater.
But that day, Bastard got the best of him.
“I got run off the Upper Yough,” Walbridge remembers. “It was my first time. I was shaking so hard I couldn’t put the skirt back on. That’s when I knew I didn’t belong there.”
Walbridge decided to walk out (hence the rapid’s name, Charlie’s Choice). Keep in mind this was the early ‘70s. Runs like the Upper Yough and the Upper Gauley, now still considered classics but by no means legitimate class Vs, were among the stoutest of the stout in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Walbridge’s decision was respectable, not cowardly.
Though he would later take part in some of the first paddling expeditions to navigate the waters of the notoriously steep upper section of the Blackwater River (before the flood of 1985), Walbridge never had his mind set on chasing first descents or making a name for himself among the paddling community. He was in it for the sheer enjoyment of the river.
“We were all just trying new things out,” he says. “That was the fun of it. There’s nothing better than going down a river that you don’t know and that there’s not very much known about it. It’s as good as it gets.”
Walbridge never stopped paddling. Even at age 67, he still runs the class IV+ Big Sandy (so long as it’s under six feet) and stays involved with the boating community at large. For over 40 years, Walbridge has written accident reports of whitewater-related incidents and has even served as the Safety Chair for the American Canoe Association (ACA) and American Whitewater (AW). In addition, he has helped to develop swiftwater safety curriculum for ACA and oversees whitewater-canoeing instruction.
There’s no doubt about it—Walbridge has seen some big change come to the paddling world. So what does he think about its future?
“People are clucking and shaking their heads at the hot paddlers today who are running waterfalls, but I remember people clucking and shaking their heads at us for playing at Pillow [on the Upper Gauley]. The young guys make me nervous, but that’s their job. We made the old guys nervous when I was in my 20s!”